The irrepressible William Eddins was back in town on Thursday to conduct the opening concert in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s season of Thursday night concerts at the Winspear Centre.
Eddins, the former music director of the orchestra, is now music director emeritus, and always a favourite for his outgoing style and his easy banter with the audience.
He appeared on stage sporting a luxuriant beard and side whiskers. He told the appreciative audience it was his “impeachment beard” (Eddins lives in Minnesota), and that he hoped that it could soon come off.
The Thursday evening series is billed as the Robbins Lighter Classics Playlist. Each concert is built around a theme, and on Thursday that theme was Spanish, with works primarily by non-Spanish composers who enjoyed writing in a ‘Spanish’ style — tourist composers, as Eddins called them.
Eddins, who is really a Mozartian at heart, is at his best in music with thinner orchestral textures, and in scores that have the kind of flamboyance so often associated with his American favourites, Gershwin and Bernstein.
The opening work exemplified the best of his style. Fauré’s Le Pas Espagnol is surprisingly showy for such a reflective composer, and was originally written for piano (part of the Dolly Suite). The showiness comes in the orchestration by Henri Rabaud, a mini tour-de-force that everyone, from the orchestra to the audience, reveled in.
The orchestral highlights of the first half were the three excerpts from the ballet music to Massenet’s 1885 opera El Cid. The best-known music from that opera is the Aragonaise that here opened the selection — it’s a wonderfully seductive dance in 6/8 time, with both the feel of a waltz and yet the drive of two main beats to the bar. Massenet is a consistently underrated (and underplayed) composer, and this was an imaginative piece of programming.
It was also a neat idea to follow it with a work that was not announced in the program, the love music from Miklós Rózsa’s score to the 1961 Hollywood epic, El Cid. This featured the solo violin of assistant concertmaster Eric Buckmann. It’s pure Hollywood, with all the expected musical clichés, and that’s what makes it so pleasurable (the full score seems uncertain whether it is in the Arabian desert or Spain).
At the same time, Rózsa manages to get a connection between the gypsy music of his native Hungary and that of Spain, with the solo violin writing (winningly played by Buchmann) often high in the range in the Hungarian style. Equally welcome was the unexpected appearance of the ESO’s new assistant conductor, Cosette Justo Valdés, who presided over an atmospheric performance.
It was an inventive programming choice to include a work that stretches back to the Iberian peninsula of the 1400s. The famous tune La Folia (its ultimate origins are unknown) has fascinated composers ever since. Over 150 of them have incorporated it into their own music, and one of those was the Italian 17th century composer Corelli. In turn, his Sonata op. 5 no. 12 “La Folia” was developed into a miniature concerto for marimba and strings by Karl Jenkins in 2004, for the extraordinary percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
The soloist here was a young Edmonton percussionist, Jacob Kryger, making his ESO debut as a soloist. The music is very attractive, and just when you think it’s outstaying its welcome (the marimba, after all, is somewhat limited in tonal variety), it launches into a virtuoso solo cadenza. There could perhaps have been a little more dynamic range from both soloist and orchestra, but Kryger made the virtuosity look easier than it was. This was a most welcome debut, and I hope we shall hear more from him.
The second half opened with a work actually by a Spanish composer, and saw the return of another Edmonton favourite, pianist Angela Cheng.
De Falla’s famous Nights in the Garden of Spain, completed in 1915, is a deceptive piece. It’s not quite a concerto for piano and orchestra, more akin to a symphonic variation for piano and orchestra, where the piano is first among equals.
On paper it is so alluring that its success seems assured. In practice, it requires considerable finesse to weave the more forceful moments in both the piano and orchestral writing into the web of almost impressionist atmosphere.
Forget that the three movements are all actually nocturnes — albeit sometimes with the flare of torches in the garden — and you end up with Days in the Gardens of Spain, rather than Nights. That can still be very attractive, but it fails to release the full potential of the music.
I have heard many performances fall into this trap, and I felt this was one of them. Eddins opened it really slowly and deliberately, and that general deliberation was carried through for both soloist and orchestra — little idiomatic colour here, no shimmering from either piano or orchestra, and the occasional misstep in tempi agreement. In other words, the magic was rather missing.
No such reservations, though, with the final work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnole. Apart from little phrases of Spanish colour —a s in the brass fanfares — it’s actually so Russian (just listen to that main tune in the second section!) and none the worse for that.
It’s also a showpiece for orchestra, and the more open textures of Rimsky-Korsakov’s brilliant orchestration suited Eddins’ conducting style far more than the denser de Falla. The orchestra went all out, and the audience loved it.
The next concert in this ESO series is on December 12, with another popular and regular visitor, Robert Bernhardt, conducting Christmas music.
One wonders whether Eddins will still have his beard by then.
ESO Nights in the Garden of Spain
Organization: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: William Eddins
Soloists: Eric Buchmann, Angela Cheng, and Jacob Kryger
Where: Winspear Centre
When: Thursday, Oct. 10